Sajjad Sulaiman Malik
The Extension Department of the Punjab government is making a shortsighted and potentially dangerous attempt to undermine the growing popularity of zero tillage.
Their motivation is ill-informed and stems out from the fact that zero tillage has been popularized in Punjab by the on-farm Water Management Department. It is a well known fact that both these are bitter rivals. However, this alone does not explain why the Extension Department is desperately trying to check the growing popularity of zero tillage or no till (as it is called in the US).
Zero tillage - whereby, crops in rotation are sown without the conventional tillage associated with land preparation is a radical departure from the previously held ideas that the more you plough the better it is. Farmers in the US first developed this technology in the 60’s and 70’s primarily as a method of meeting the sowing deadlines of various crops. As time passed, the zero or no till methodology was refined to a point where it had completely surpassed conventional tillage in terms of higher yields coupled with lower costs.
In Pakistan the idea of zero tillage was first floated by the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), which imported several zero till drills in the early 80’s tested them and finding these suitable for farming needs entrusted the Agriculture Extension Department of Punjab with popularizing this technology. Unfortunately, the Extension Department, after making half-hearted attempts recorded that the zero till is a “failure” in Pakistan.
Imagine the chagrin of the Extension Department when the Water Management Department not only succeeded in proving that the zero tillage not only saves water in the rice — wheat cropping system in Punjab — but also increases the yield and reduces the cost. It is a triple benefit system for the farmers. Our farmers may be illiterate and simple, but they are not fools, who can be duped again and again.
Basmati rice and wheat are being grown on my farms in Shiekhupura for the last 25 years through this cropping pattern. The average yield of wheat prior to 1999 had always been in the region of 25-32 maunds per acre, applying all inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides/weedicides etc. The primary reason for the low yield was late sowing which couldn’t be helped since Basmati is late maturing rice. After harvesting it, the field is ploughed 4 to 5 times to get rid of the rice stubble and is made ready for sowing wheat, which is by mid-December but it is sowed on my farms till end December and sometimes early January.
In 1999, by accident I stumbled upon zero tillage. Though, Water Management Department had informed me about this technology, but what forced me to adopt this method of wheat sowing was the unavailability of the combine harvesters for harvesting my Basmati crop. By the time rice was harvested, it was the 4th week of November and I was visualizing wheat plantation in all of January. That would have given a marginal yield in the region of 20-25 maunds per acre.
I took a plunge and went in for the zero tillage drill and was finished with wheat sowing by the 10th of December. That year my average wheat yield jumped to 38 maunds per acre. This yield increase was combined with a cost reduction of almost Rs1000 per acre (no ploughing or tillage was required). The results were simply unbelievable. Next year, the sowing was completed by the end of November and the average wheat yield climbed up to 43 maunds per acre. The cost reduction over conventional tillage remained the same. In two years’ research over the Internet it was discovered that the zero or no till had been mentioned in the list of the 10 most significant advancements in agriculture in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, the Extension Department keeps on spreading the rumour that zero till increases the pest and weed problems. During an official visit to the Indian Punjab in April 2000, the question regarding pest and weed problems associated with zero till was asked both from the Indian scientists and the farmers. In every case, the reply was the same that whereas pests remained unchanged as a bonus of zero till weeds was reduced. The farmers over there had been doing zero till for the last 5 years and were following the same rice — wheat cropping pattern as we do.
In the light of the experiences it is recommended that the farmers both in Punjab and Sindh, to reduce costs and increase the yield, should adopt the technology of zero tillage. Keeping in view the growing scarcity of water, rising fuel prices and the looming WTO, zero tillage will indeed be a life saving technology for the Pakistani farmer, particularly for those who plant rice-wheat.
In Sheikhpura rapid switchover to zero till is being witnessed and this is not confined only to Punjab. In fact a progressive farmer from Jacobabad Sindh, after hearing, too, has purchased a zero till drill from Daska and took it to his land. Recently, the district government of Lahore has purchased zero till drills for the use of local Lahore farmers. Since I started zero till on my farm, I have had several visits during the last two years from the Extension Department personnel who have been desperately trying to gather evidence about the stem borer attack on the rice crop. They have been sorely disappointed.